Wednesday, March 24, 2004

"Stopping the World," the Fourth Definition

'One must assume responsibility for being in a weird world,' he said. 'We are in a weird world, you know.'

I nodded my head affirmatively.

'We're not talking about the same thing,' he said. 'For you the world is weird because if you're not bored with it you're at odds with it. For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make every act count, since you are going to be here for only a short while, in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.'

I insisted that to be bored with the world or to be at odds with it is the human condition.

'So, change it,' he replied dryly. 'If you do not respond to that challenge you are as good as dead.'

- Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan; the Lessons of Don Juan, pp. 107-108.

During my time in jail, I happened across some of Castaneda's books. I know there remains some controversy as to if his works are fact or fiction. I tend to think that they may be more fiction than fact, or at least that Don Juan is a composite of various teachers Castaneda met. The stories are about Carlos, an Anthropology student and later professor at UCLA, who meets up with a brujo; a "man of knowledge," who takes him under his wing as an apprentice. Through the use of various techniques, including psychotropic drugs, Carlos enters into "a separate reality." One of these techniques is called "stopping the world;"

Don Juan stated that in order to arrive at 'seeing' one first had to 'stop the world.' 'Stopping the world' was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow...Don Juan's precondition for 'stopping the world' was that one had to be convinced; in other words, one had to learn a new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and that in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.

- Journey,
p. 14.
Castaneda convinced me that maybe I wasn't quite as crazy as some people thought I was. If his bizarre journey could become a cultural favorite, I might just be on the right path. Encouraged by this, I headed for the desert of New Mexico.

Was any great epiphany waiting for me there? Certainly not what I was expecting. I saw one possible brujo. After a night of drinking, we convinced a neighbor to take us onto the reservation. We drove for hours in the desert, until we came to a house with nothing else near it for miles in any direction. We stopped about half a mile from the house. The neighbor told us to stay in the car while he approached the house on foot. After a few minutes, an elderly man came out, walked to the front of the car, stared at us, and then turned around and retraced his steps. The neighbor came running to the car, shouting, "Go! Go!" as he piled into the backseat, both pockets of his coat brimming with peyote buttons. I've always imagined this old man was much like Castaneda's Don Juan. I suppose I'll never know.

We spent a lot of time in the desert. We simply drove off the road into the sand. If we got stuck, we jacked up the car and pushed it off the jack until eventually the rear wheels found firm sand. We hunted jackrabbits, drank beer, and eventually got jobs at a local auto dealer detailing cars.

During one night of intense tequila consumption, we caught up with another car that had passed us and almost forced us off the road. We screamed at the lone occupant as we kicked dents into his fenders, broke off his antennae and smashed his side mirrors. He finally drove away, taking off the driver's door of our car in his haste. We threw the door into the backseat and took chase. I loaded up one of the rifles that was still lying on the seat in the back from our earlier jackrabbit hunt. I got off a couple of shots before the car in front of us careened around a corner and was gone.

Relocating to another state had not changed much, it seemed, except now I was looking at a New Mexico prison instead of one in Oregon. Time for desperate measures. My life was out of control. I couldn't even follow my own script anymore. I was tired of being hungry and broke. I needed discipline. I needed to be forced to play out a role in a drama that I could not manipulate. I needed to rediscover what it meant to be "normal."

The year was 1973. Vietnam was drawing to a close. The local recruiter was desperate for volunteers. By creatively filling out the forms in order to keep my colorful past hidden in obscurity, I was able to enlist in the US Navy. I served for four years as a jet engine mechanic, and received a good conduct medal and an honorable discharge. Imagine that.

Just a couple of comments regarding Castaneda; to my young mind, his stories seemed quite innovative and exciting. Later in life I found other renditions of these same ideas that were much more coherent and healthy. I am not recommending Castaneda's work.

My primary reservation regarding Castaneda is the appearance of entities he refers to as "allies," of which Mescalito is probably the most well-known. I find them troubling. They were often depicted as dark and malevolent figures, who had to be forced to form an alliance through various rituals and connections made through complex allegiances.

During this wild adventure, I had encountered principalities, or powers, that fit Castaneda's descriptions well. My experience (and Castaneda consistently insists that knowledge rises from experience), was that these were destructive forces, playing in a drama which I did not understand, and in which I could never be more than a pawn. I was helpless against them.

I am not suggesting a dualistic understanding, of forces of good waging war with forces of evil. That kind of thinking makes little sense of my experience. Yet, the reality of "twisted good" being a very real power in this world is denied at our own peril.

Perhaps a few words from Walter Wink will make this clearer;

I do not believe that evil angels seize human institutions and pervert them. Rather, I see the demonic as arising within the institution itself, as it abandons its divine vocation for a selfish, lesser goal. Therefore I would not attempt to cast out the spirit of a city, for example, but rather, to call on God to transform it, to recall it to its divine vocation. My spiritual conversation is with God, not the demonic.

- Walter Wink, The Powers That Be; Theology for a New Millennium, p. 197.
Wink's work I will recommend, without any reservations.

I had discovered that the script which I thought I had written was not always originating from me. I seemed headed for self destruction, even though that had never been my intention. I was broken, and could not fix myself. I needed a guide, a Director, who would place me in a drama in which I survived the last scene.

When things got out of control, and I was confronted with frightening realities, I had taken to repeating the name of Jesus Christ over and over. I used it as a type of talisman. It did not "make it all better," but seemed to lessen the feelings of panic and despair. A little thing, I suppose.

When the man stamping my dog tags asked what religion he should put on them, I said, without hesitation, "Christian."

He rolled his eyes and asked, "What kind of Christian?"

"I don't know," I replied. He muttered as he scrawled the generic label on a form and called for the next recruit.

Another little thing. Yet, this is how so many journeys begin; small steps that lead to a new path, and a new life.